Rules may help us make better choices, but they can also restrict our freedom. That makes for complex situations
In these tense coronavirus times, job losses are, sadly, not big news in general. When it concerns the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, though, that is unusual enough to deserve a mention in the news. Dr Catherine Calderwood had been caught by the police, travelling to her second home in Earlsferry, an hour’s drive from her main residence in the Scottish capital Edinburgh, during the lockdown. This was not essential travel.
She had broken the rules, and although her boss, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, had first said she could stay on, Dr Calderwood, who had held the post for the last five years, resigned on April 5th.
Rules rule our lives
A tough consequence of what might have looked like a minor – insignificant even – transgression. For what was the actual harm in what she did? The drive in her car, with just her family, was most unlikely to raise anyone’s risk of infection. And even if she had visited a store at her destination to collect provisions, that risk would have been barely different (and potentially lower) than the equivalent in Edinburgh.
Should one follow the rule – whatever the rule – if not doing so has no discernible disadvantages? This question reminds us more than a little of the ethical contrast between a deontological and a consequentialist (or utilitarian) standpoint. The former is about following rules, the latter is about doing what provides the best consequences, or the most overall utility. If nobody got harmed by Dr Calderwood’s trip, and she and her family would enjoy the weekend away, that made good utilitarian sense. But it broke the rule.
Deontological ethics are sometimes regarded as a bit more primitive than consequentialism. It is decision-making for those who prefer not to think, whereas the consequentialist will need to weigh up every option and their consequences. Such a deliberate, reasoned and effortful approach must surely be superior.
But when we look at our daily lives, it seems we make many of our decisions on the basis of rules. We simply don’t have the mental capacity to thoroughly consider every choice we make. And I am not even thinking about the trivial stuff like what to wear or what to have for breakfast.
When we are buying a new computer or booking a holiday, and considering the various options, we rarely even explore the cheapest options. Why? Because we almost certainly apply a rule known as the price-quality heuristic. We take the situational cue of the price, and assume that a really low price means very low quality – poor battery life or a dull screen, or a poorly maintained cottage or a hotel room enjoying the fumes of the kitchen or the noise of a busy street 24 hours per day. If we drive a manual car, we use the sound of the engine as a heuristic rule to decide when to switch to a higher gear, rather than consult the rev counter and compare the displayed engine speed with a memorized threshold to make the decision.
We have many such rules that make our life easy: we observe the cues, and know what to do, without any cognitive effort. Some of them are individual and carefully honed, like the skilled intuition of a woodworker who almost unconsciously recognizes the salient features of a piece of timber, and who knows at once how best to work it. Others are more widely shared, like the price-quality heuristic or when to change gears.
Even stricter and enforced societal rules like laws manifest themselves in a similar way. The potential penalty of violating them may in part motivate us to obey them, but they too relieve us from the burden of having to make complex trade-offs, collect evidence and weigh up the pros and cons. As the slogan of a popular sports gear brand suggests: just do it.
Nothing stops us overruling, or even changing the rules we construct (or simply adopt) for ourselves, if we judge that doing so increases our welfare. A compelling example is described in a paper (summarized here) by Shaun Larcom, an economist at Cambridge university and colleagues. Like most commuters, the people of London follow a homemade rule. Without giving it any thought, they walk to the same bus stop or tube station, and make the same journey to their workplace every day. However, a two-day strike in 2014 forced many of them to experiment with alternative routes. They had to consciously work out a different itinerary to work – and after the strike finished, about 5% of them stuck with the new route.
But for societal rules, we have to be more circumspect, since breaking them can cost us. That doesn’t stop us, for example, not to stop at a STOP sign, or exceeding the speed limit if we are in a hurry or just fancy putting our foot down, when we (rightly or wrongly) decide it is not unsafe to do so. (We may or may not correctly weigh up the chance of being caught in the process, of course.)
The rule trade-off
But let us return to the coronavirus measures. When we violate the traffic rules, the consequences are typically bounded and quite limited. We might harm ourselves, and maybe a few other people, but that is where it ends. If we have an infectious disease, that is not the case. The basic reproduction number R0 for the Sars-CoV-2 virus (the number of new infections arising from an existing one) is estimated to be between 1.4 and 3.9. This means one person can be at the origin of tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of others contracting the disease.
This is a particular reason why rules can be important in this situation. Even if we reason consciously and make our own trade-offs, we may not fully appreciate the magnitude of the potential consequences of our choice. And by and large, people seem to be willing to abide by the rules. Most of us seem to have settled in the new routine of isolation at home, only broken to buy essentials or go for a walk or a cycle ride. But will it last?
A few weeks ago, a large group of behavioural scientists questioned the policy of the British government not to introduce social distancing measures too early, to avoid “behavioural fatigue” setting in – people getting tired of the bans and stopping complying with them. But as time moves on, people are feeling the sacrifices they are making – notably the direct contact with close relatives – more and more keenly. A grandparent may, at present, consider breaking the rules only in the most extreme circumstances – their daughter or son might get ill or injured, and need them to look after their grandchildren, perhaps. But over the coming weeks this resolve may begin to crumble, as the sorrow of social distancing, and not being able to hug their children and grandchildren grows.
A rolling survey in Belgium run by Maarten Vansteenkiste, a development psychologist at the University of Ghent, provides some evidence that something like this could well happen. Earlier this week, it found that the motivation to comply has been slipping, from a steady 81% initially, to 76% (the numbers are cited in this Dutch language article). The temptation to put aside the social distancing rules, and make a deliberate trade-off may continue to increase. This is not surprising. The benefits of sticking to the rule are remote and not very salient if nobody in your vicinity has been infected. The upside of breaking them, in contrast, the prospect of seeing loved ones in person and embracing them, will become ever more prominent in people’s minds as they miss them more and more.
Dr Calderwood made the decision to break the rule.
As the lockdown goes on and on, will we manage to resist doing the same?